nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
February 4, 2007
Absolute Clarity, by the Russian émigré playwright Sophia Romma, is (loosely) adapted from She, in the Absence of Love and Death, a 1970s play by Edvard Radzinski, a playwright whose works are almost unknown in the United States—though apparently out-produced only by Chekhov in his native Russia. The director, Yuri Joffe, is also extremely well-known in Russia, but has worked only rarely in this country. Unfortunately, despite Joffe's elegant staging, this production may not be the best opportunity for New York audiences to be introduced to these European talents. It is perhaps facile, though entirely true, to say that Romma's sprawling, shaggy play could use some streamlining and fine-tuning before it could be called "absolutely clear."
Underneath the sprawl lies a simple, vivid coming-of-age story. Clare, a precocious and lonely young poet with a tempestuous relationship with her single mother, rockets out into the world seeking love and validation in all the wrong places—first by auditioning for a jazz band whose saxophonist wants to make love, not art, with her, and then in an uneasy relationship with a much older man, Daniel, a relationship that veers unpredictably between paternal and sexual. She's trying to find real emotional connections, to make a brave new life for herself as an artist, and to be more than the "ordinaries" with their mundane jobs and their repetitive days. It's a familiar story, but in spite or perhaps because of that familiarity, it rings emotionally true. Cara Francis, as Clare, carries the play, finding the right balance between bravado and vulnerability.
But I think that the search for self-realization through art, and even the search for genuine emotional connections, had an inherently political subtext in Soviet Russia that is lacking in 21st century New York—and without that subtext, it feels like Romma's working too hard to force a significance that the play doesn't have—and doesn't need.
Layered on top of, and interwoven with, Clare's story, we also find a series of subplots about the searches for emotional or artistic truth and for true love: the romantic tribulations of Patsy, Clare's mother, who makes a lot of bad choices regarding men, including betraying her best friend to hold onto a man; the desperate search for love of Belle, Patsy's best friend, a fortysomething single African American woman; the marital strife of Daniel, an attorney whose wife is cheating on him; the sordid love story between Sylvie, Daniel's French wife, and Roberto, a powerful and seemingly sexually irresistible judge; a jazz band that fills several, sometimes contradictory, roles (occasionally they narrate and comment on the action; at other times they're part of it); and the long-past custody case that involved Daniel as attorney, Roberto as judge, Patsy as plaintiff, and Clare as the child.
It's too much information, too many subplots larded with too many coincidental connections—and none of them feels fully realized, or honest. Instead of raising the stakes for Clare, the other stories simply pull focus from her, and hammer home the themes of the play in an overly literal way. The acting is noticeably weak in several of these subplots as well.
Although I didn't think the device of the jazz band was used consistently or coherently, the stage comes to life whenever the musicians come out. The characterizations in the band veer dangerously close to caricature—Joey, the sexually predatory Eastern European sax player (Patrick Knighton); Tita, the Latina siren (Brianne Berkson); Duke, the hip-hop African-American frontman (Alexander Elisa); and Moses, the nebbishy, sexually frustrated Jewish drummer (Jason Yachanin)—but all four performers fill thin roles with electricity and boundless charisma.
The production is stylish and visually energetic, if a bit busy. Anastasia Glebova's set and Joffe's staging fill a very conventional space with unconventional angles, movement patterns, and visual relationships. Robert Eggers's costumes draw a sharp line between the "ordinaries" and the artists; where the band members pop with glitz and color (Joey's pink zebra-patterned leggings are a particularly striking example), the lawyers and Daniel's wife wear dark suits.
There's clearly a lot going on here—too much, I think. In trying to translate Radzinski's text to a new country, a new century, and a new political context, while still retaining its spirit, Romma appears to have gotten a little lost.